It was nagaswaram wizard T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, who designed the present-day paari nagaswaram as an improvement over its predecessor timiri, a short instrument capable of producing high pitch. Similarly, the thavil , the percussion instrument used as accompaniment, has also gone through such modifications, making a big difference in its weight and the sound produced.
Thavil-makers continue to use jackfruit wood for making the drum and buffalo calf skin for valanthalai , the instrument’s right side, and goat skin for thoppi . But, they no longer use bamboo laths for making rings that hold the skin plates on both sides of the drum. Leather belts for connecting both sides of the instrument also paved the way for steel belts.
“Rings made of bamboos would break easily and artistes needed to replace it frequently. So, I decided to use steel pipes,” said T.G. Paramasivam, one of the many ring makers in Thiruvaiyaru. He first introduced steel pipes for making rings, replacing bamboo laths.
Normally, pipes with one-inch diameter are used and they would be covered by a few layers of goat skin. Application of paste made of tamarind seed and sawdust would increase the width of the ring to six inches.
However, the one who made substantial modifications in the instrument is Poraiyar Venugopala Pillai. He came up with changes to overcome his physical difficulties. He used to play for Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai and during the festival of ‘Aani Manjanam,’ he had high fever.
“In the morning, I found the reason for the fever. I had hydrocele and it looked like the end of my career,” recalled Venugopala Pillai. He did not play for some time. One day, he happened to watch a western band playing outside a theatre in Mayiladuthurai to attract patrons for the film Sakunthala .
“My eyes spotted steel nuts and bolts in the drum and I decided to use them in the thavil,” he said.
First, he used steel belts used to pack textile bundles. But, its tensile strength was too weak to withstand full tightening of the instrument.
So, with the help of a friend who was running a foundry in Tiruvarur, he manufactured thick steel belts. He attached rings on both sides to a steel rod in the middle of the drum, carved out of jackfruit wood. But, the arrangement failed to produce the desired effect when it came to sound.
“So, I experimented with changing the location of the connecting rod for many times before succeeding in producing the perfect sound,” he said.
The great thavil maestro, Nachiyarkovil Raghava Pillai, was the first to appreciate his efforts, he said.
Musicologist B.M. Sundaram, author of ‘Mangala Isai Mannargal,’ a book that gives rare glimpses into the lives of yesteryear nagaswaram and thavil players, said while Venugopala Pillai’s discovery reduced the burden of thavil players, the sound it produced was not as pleasing as it was earlier.
“Change is inevitable. Today thavil players replace in a jiffy the leather plates that break in the midst of a concert with a help of a spanner. But, the ‘naadam’ of the old instrument is missing,” he said, pointing out that thavil players no more stand and play the instrument as in the past, because of the instrument’s weight.